In the comic book world of author Pearl S. Buck, the superhero is on a crusade without a cape, mask, or phone booth for a quick change.

Johnny Everyman, a civil engineer by day and night, fights for ethnic and racial justice using only his powers of persuasion.

Billed as the "friend of the people of many lands," Everyman was the Nobel Prize-winning writer's effort to spread a message of acceptance and cross-cultural understanding in the 1940s, when the world was at war and prejudice and xenophobia were widespread.

"This is [the time of] the rise of Hitler, the internment of Japanese Americans, and two decades before the Voting Rights Act," said James Braxton Peterson, director of Africana Studies at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, who is a comic book collector. "In that context, a white male who advocated for equality is a pretty extraordinary thing."

The groundbreaking, but unsung, hero is the subject of "Comic Books Unmasked: A Look at Race," a new exhibit at Pearl S. Buck International (PSBI) in Hilltown Township, Bucks County. The nonprofit, headquartered in the author's former home, aims to preserve the legacy of the author and activist who won a Pulitzer Prize for her 1932 novel The Good Earth.

The exhibit chronicles the creation of Johnny Everyman, who intervened in discriminatory practices as he traveled the world. The series, conceived by Buck, comprised 19 stories produced by DC Comics between 1944 and 1947.

In one titled "Dedicated to the Millions of American Negroes," Everyman invites African American soldiers denied service at a diner to eat with him. In "The Spirit of '46," he steps in when a young Filipino boy is taunted for marching with his country's flag in an Independence Day parade.

The exhibit is being mounted at a time when the nonprofit is expanding its mission beyond sponsoring children overseas to include promoting conversations and projects on race and diversity.

"We want to help young people develop into global citizens and position PSBI as a thought leader on these issues," said Janet Mintzer, president and CEO. "With all the things happening in the media - such as Black Lives Matter - that makes us aware that we need to be having these conversations."

Comic books and graphic novels are "a great tool" for reaching young people, Mintzer said.

The Johnny Everyman series was a collaboration between DC Comics and Buck's East and West Association, which she founded with her husband, Richard Walsh, to help Americans understand the culture and concerns of people in China and India during World War II.

The daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, Buck spent most of her first 40 years in China and wrote The Good Earth about the travails of a family living there before World War I.

Race and tolerance were ceaseless themes in her books, poetry, plays, and screenplays, said historian Peter Conn, author of Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography and executive director of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.

She was active in the early civil rights movement and worked for women's rights. Mother of one biological daughter, she adopted seven children, becoming a staunch advocate for biracial and international adoption.

In the '40s, Buck decided to use yet another vehicle to spread her message: comic books. She began writing educational stories for Real Facts Comics. She also joined the editorial advisory board at DC, home of Superman and Batman.

Buck made a deal that she or her staff would provide ideas and some text for DC's comic books, thereby reaching a mass audience that wouldn't necessarily read her books or go to her lectures, said Robert Shaffer, a history professor at Shippensburg University who has studied and written about Buck.

The Johnny Everyman series was part of DC's World's Finest Comics and Comic Cavalcade.

Its backstory is chronicled in letters and other documents in the PSBI archives, which exhibit curator Marie Toner began examining last year to prepare for a symposium on Buck and race at the African American Museum in Philadelphia.

Everyman was short-lived.

The popularity of superheroes began to be eclipsed by horror comics, said comic book expert Mike Grost, of Southfield, Mich.

At the same time, Buck and her East and West group were accused of being communist sympathizers. DC ended its editorial advisory board in 1949; the East and West group closed in 1950.

The Everyman comic books' influence is difficult to assess because few have studied and written about them. Yet, Buck's intent remains clear, said Peterson, a PSBI board member. "If you can reach young people and get them to understand things about racial equality and xenophobia," he said, "you could change the world."

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